In the early summer of 1788, George III was gently but steadily going off his head. He had been mad before, early in his reign shortly after his marriage, but only briefly, and his cure had seemed reasonably complete. After all, he had withstood the strains and anxieties of twenty years of politics which included both the Wilkesite agitation and the loss of America. He was odd: everyone recognized that. He was both inordinately loquacious and inordinately curious. A day out with the King was always thoroughly exhausting; nevertheless his own stamina seemed unshakeable. He had ridden through the dangerous tempests of his domestic worries with the same resolution as that with which he had faced his public defeats. The scandalous life of the Prince of Wales infuriated him; he argued, pleaded, threatened, and cajoled in a tumult of verbiage, but at least his sanity held. As this summer wore on, however, the signs grew ominous. George III may or may not have shaken the lower bough of an oak tree in Windsor Park thinking it was the King of Prussia’s hand and settled down to a long conversation with it, but certainly during his visit to Worcester he was extremely odd, climbing with the Queen all over a half-constructed china shop, up and down the ladders, bewildering the workmen with his rapid fire of questions to which he expected no answers. Then the physical symptoms started up—hives, swollen feet, cramp, bile, and chronic insomnia. After denouncing the importation of senna to his physician for three hours and sending a blank check to the actress, Mrs. Siddons, the Court and the politicians had to admit that the King was, mad. And Britain was plunged into a major constitutional crisis.
If the King were to be declared incurably insane, the Prince of Wales would become Regent. But did he become so automatically with the full rights of the Crown’s prerogative to use as his own? Yes, said Charles James Fox, and Edmund Burke was set to work to provide the historical and philosophic justification. No, said William Pitt; the conditions of Regency would be laid down by Parliament. After all, Pitt held the majority there and had no wish to return to the Bar if he could help it. But even with conditions, Pitt knew he was done for once the Prince of Wales took the reins of government in his hands. So all depended on how mad the King was: was his case hopeless or curable? And if so, how soon?
The British royal family detests discussion of the private lives of its ancestors and George III’s illness has been clothed in a certain amount of mystery. The rumors, of course, were dramatic enough—the Foxite Whigs saw to that. They said that George III had tried to strangle the Prince of Wales, that he had poured a full chamber pot over the head of his physician, dubbing him Knight of Cloacina, that he had become so violent that he had to be strapped down on his bed. Thanks to Mr. Chevenix-Trench we know now just how insane the King was. He has used unpublished manuscript sources, the diary of Sir George Baker, one of the physicians, and the Warren-Munro letters with judgment and skill. From this it is clear that even on his maddest days George III had flashes of sanity and that he himself was well aware of his tragic situation. The fact of intermittent sanity bred hope in Dr. Willis, who finally took charge of the King, and it was Willis’s hope that kept William Pitt prevaricating over the Regency Bill, cunningly driving Fox and Burke into more and more extravagant defenses of the prerogative. Mr. Chevenix-Trench is a Pittite and he sees little merit in the Prince of Wales’s cause, yet it could be argued that Pitt and his supporters, in their Regency Bill, were much more at variance with the assumptions commonly held about monarchy and the constitution in the eighteenth century than Fox or the Prince. However Mr. Chevenix Trench treats the political and constitutional issues somewhat cavalierly. They are handled with far greater authority and acumen by Dr. Derry in his recent The Regency Crisis and the Whigs, 1788-9.
On the personal level Mr. Chevenix-Trench is excellent. He is shrewd about human nature; he avoids cheap jokes and shows real insight into George III’s personality. And he writes agreeably. Yet in some ways the heart of the matter eludes him.
The gravity of the crisis was enormous. George III was the executive head of his country; his incapacity, if permanent, meant a reversal of policy, a total redistribution of political power, and a new court. That is why the courtiers did their best to disguise the King’s illness as long as possible and to pump out optimistic bulletins when that could no longer be done. Their livelihoods depended as much on the King’s health as did William Pitt’s. And naturally the Queen, too, did not regard her son’s accession to power with anything but forboding. She disliked his principles and hated his morals. The terror of what the future might hold made the Court amenable to experiment, and to the employment of Dr. Willis, a parson of seventy-three who kept a mad-house for an intellectual curiosity. Believed to be a mountebank because he treated his patients like human beings, he quickly began to succeed where the heads of the medical profession had failed. Of course, Willis did not cure the King completely. George III was able to act once more the part of King, but his mental energies were so undermined, as was his confidence, that he rapidly gave up that detailed, daily involvement with politics which had been the hallmark of the first twenty years of his reign. His madness changed the nature of British monarchy. After this, kings ceased to rule, they merely reigned. And a perverse historian might argue that the tragedy of George III’s madness was that it came too late, for how different might have been the history of America as well as Britain had he lost his reason when it was first threatened in 1765. Yet perhaps a more pungent question for an American reader to ask himself would be—what would happen if an American President entered that twilight world between sanity and madness?
March 25, 1965